Lily Lindon finds it difficult to believe she is entering Lent term of her MPhil in Children’s Literature. She offers some fictional super-schools that you can enroll at part-time when you need a break.
Welcome back to another term at Cambridge! It is easy for Lent term to feel like we’ve stumbled into Narnia: always winter, but never Christmas. The MPhilers are faced with the prospect of early morning lectures (in the cold?), RMS reading (with numbers in it?), and writing another assessed essay (with actual, real children?!) it is easy to yearn for the vacation. Oh, for the promised land of Easter, we think, as we trundle along with our over-full rucksacks. Yet during the much-coveted holiday, I found myself drawn to reading books about fictional schools. (The words ‘grass’ and ‘greener’ spring to mind.) Fantasy schools have always been one of my favourite places to spend time in, probably because imaginary teachers couldn’t set me homework or make me do PE. There are hundreds of brilliant series set in extraordinary institutions (and some exquisitely awful ones too). It is with only a small amount of irony that I suggest you take a break from your real-world reading, put down your muggle stationery, and (re)read some of these highly ‘educational’ texts…
The Charlie Bone Series by Jenny Nimmo
I re-read these as part of my preparation for Essay 1 last term because when I was young, Charlie Bone answered my insatiable thirst for another series like Harry Potter. Bloors’ Academy seemed to tick several boxes for me as a school: on the surface it is a school for those talented in art (green), drama (purple), or music (blue). Unlike my real school, where it felt like those (my favourite subjects) were essentially after-school activities, Bloors’ students were timetabled to practice their skill all day. The other bonus of Bloors’ is that it also accepts students who are ‘endowed’ with supernatural talents: for example, the protagonist Charlie can hear the people in photographs, and even enter into the past through listening to them. I always thought the most desirable skill was that of (spoiler warning!) Olivia Vertigo. Olivia doesn’t realise she is magically endowed until late in the series, when she conveniently discovers she can make things in her imagination come true. This skill is mostly used by the characters to create diversions, like making an immense dinosaur stomp through their city when they need to steal something from their principal’s office. Slight overkill, perhaps, but pretty cool nonetheless. Just watch out for hypnotists and poisonous clothing, and you should be fine getting your education at Bloors’.
Divergent trilogy by Veronica Roth
This trilogy passed me by when I was a younger, but I discovered it this vacation and shamelessly read them back to back. Roth’s vision feels similar to the Hunger Games formula: in a dystopian society, teens must choose which of five factions they belong to, based on their key personality traits. Would you, like the protagonist Tris, choose to become a Dauntless, who try to eliminate fear through their reckless, aggressive, thrill-seeking behaviour? Perks of being schooled with Dauntless: learning to throw knives, getting tattoos. Downsides: high likelihood of being violently killed. Or perhaps you’re an Erudite, who value knowledge, reason, and curiosity? You probably are if you think of yourself as a power-hungry cross between a Ravenclaw and Slytherin. If you want something a bit jollier, you might be an Amity: placing friendship and harmony above all else, they’re a bit like hippie hufflepuff hobbits. Or would you like to live a Candor, who value the truth? (Not suitable if, like Rihanna, you love the way people lie.) Lastly, you might want to martyr yourself to the Abnegation cause, and try to live a completely selfless life: Abnegation are not allowed mirrors, which might be nice for bad hair days. None of them seem quite right? Perhaps you’re an eponymous Divergent – the get out clause you wished you could have at Hogwarts. (For the record, I like to think I’ve got enough Amity and Abnegation sprinkled on my Erudite heart that I would avoid trying to kill everyone. Maybe not though.)
The Magicians by Lev Grossman
We’ve moved from secondary, to young adult; let us now attend a University (/American college) with The Magicians. Quentin Coldwater, a prodigy with a hidden talent for sorcery, thinks he has finally found where he belongs when he becomes a student at Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy. I hope that description gives you some clue to the style of this pretentious and self-indulgent gem. It really is deliciously grandiloquent, filled with teen angst about relationships, card tricks, and how difficult it is to be a magical super-genius. Perks of being educated at Brakebills: you are living inside a fantasy world outside of time, that sounds quite perky to me. Also you can turn marbles into fireworks, and become an arctic fox to flirt with the girl you fancy. Cons: you might obsessively practice sleight of hand techniques until you forget to eat. Worst of all, however, you will be in a constant state of self-pitying malaise despite being the very definition of privileged. There’s also a recent American tv adaptation with predictably stylish actors in, if that’s how you prefer to ingest this kind of guilty pleasure.
Some other institutions to consider:
(I feel like UCAS.)
Anyway, here are some other options if none of those tickles your educational fancy: Walden’s H.I.V.E: Higher Institute of Villainous Education, if you think your school didn’t equip you well enough to become the supervillain you’ve always dreamed of being.
Also consider Miss Cackle’s Academy for Witches in Murphy’s The Worst Witch series, if you’re desperate to have a cat and a broomstick; read Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea series, if you wish Harry Potter contained rather more beautiful moral philosophy; or Riordan’s Percy Jackson series, if you prefer your heroes to be a bit more ancient Greeky; lastly, there’s always Pullman’s alternative Oxford in His Dark Materials if you want something a bit closer to home. You also get to have an incredible daemon pet/soul follow you around. Shame the colleges still refuse to admit women.
And so we return, ineluctably, to our own Cambridge. We are, of course, incredibly fortunate to be spending time in a city which so many inhabitants, visitors, and students find rather magical… If only it weren’t quite so bloody cold. Anyway, I hope you all find some glimpses of the ‘super’ this term, whether at formal hall, your favourite coffee shop, or simply between the pages of a good book.